Conflict Resolution

Thursday, 15 May 2008 15:49
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While the vertical beam of the cross reminds us that Jesus came to reconcile men to God, the horizontal beam should remind us that he also came to reconcile men and women to each other. The lead evangelist of the Singapore Church writes an insightful, helpful article on resolving conflict in God's Church.

This is one in a series of articles published by the Church Builders Service Team for the ICOC Co-operation Churches. Please use the email icon above to share this article with friends.

Conflict Resolution

Introduction
Conflict resolution is important in the spiritual world. After all, the God of peace (Hebrews 13:20) came down to earth in the form of a man to make peace: “and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1: 20). Jesus is called the Lord of peace: “Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way.” (2 Thessalonians 3:16). And Jesus preached peace: “He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.” (Ephesians 2:17).
 

As Christ’s followers, we are “called to peace”, we are to “be peaceable”, to “live in peace”, and we are supposed to “pursue peace”. Romans 12:18, II Corinthians 13:11, Colossians 3:15, I Timothy 2:2, II Timothy 2:22, Titus 3:2. How seriously should we take the verses on peace? Well, the scriptures say that we are to make every effort! Romans 14:19, Ephesians 4:3, Hebrews 12:14.
 

As disciples, we love God and are trying to follow his words, but at the same time we are sinners and we make mistakes. Put two sinners together for very long and you are bound to have conflict, so it is important that, since we are trying to pursue peace, we learn how to resolve conflict. Fortunately for us, God gives us the bible, which is the world’s greatest manual on Conflict Resolution, but more on that later.
 

We have probably heard the phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. This statement has roughly the same validity as “the earth is flat”. Our world is filled with the bitter consequences of words that have hurt, and the unresolved conflicts they have caused – divorces, family abandonment, political hostility, racism, to name a few. These sometimes lead to violence, death, psychological damage, and most importantly, the spiritual disintegration of millions of souls. Dr. C. Everett Koop, the former U.S. Surgeon General, reckons that 80 percent of all medical illness seen in the doctor’s office are either caused by emotional stress, or will be significant worsened by stressors (Stoop, 1996). Much of this has to do with conflicts past and present either at the work place or within the family. We have also seen that unresolved conflict causes “dysfunction”, and this dysfunction is often passed on, unintentionally, to the next generation. As the saying goes, “Dysfunction is the gift that keeps on giving.”
 

Even in church settings, we have seen the dire consequences of not having proper conflict resolution tools in place. It is very probable that much of the recent ICOC crisis in our fellowship that led to the fragmentation of hundreds of churches can eventually be traced back to unresolved conflicts, or at least when real issues were being dealt with, unresolved conflicts caused hatred and bitterness to be fanned into flame. Conflict resolution is therefore a critical component for the forward movement and growth of our churches, and essential for us as Christians who are seeking to imitate God and live a life of peace.
 

While there are many types of conflicts, the scope of this paper is narrowed down to issues that typically take place within a church setting. As such, the focus will be on the following:
 

I. RESPONDING TO CONFLICT
II. STEPS INVOLVED IN RESOLVING CONFLICTS
III. LEARNING TO FORGIVE PROPERLY
IV. STEPS INVOLVED IN FORGIVENESS

Definitions
While the term “conflict” is an extremely familiar one, it would be helpful to give a definition:
 

“Conflict is a disagreement through which parties involved perceive a threat to their needs, interests or concerns.” (Webne-Behrman)
 

While the definition here may be simple, resolving conflicts can sometimes be quite a complex task. The scriptures are filled with passages and examples on conflicts between two parties, seen in the table below.


Scripture
Parties Involved
Nature of Conflict
Matthew 5:23-24
Christian Brother or Sister
Unspecified Grudge(s)
Matthew 10:34-36
Christian's Family
One believes, Others don't
Matthew 16:22-23
Jesus v. Peter
Jesus' suffering and death
Matthew 18:13
Jesus v. Disciples
Bring little children
Matthew 18:16-18
Church members
Unspecified
Matthew 20:24
Jesus v. Disciples
Jealousy
Matthew 23:1ff
Jesus v. Pharisees
Stubborness to believe
Philippians 4:23-24
Euodia v. Syntyche
Interpersonal Conflict
Acts 15:36-40
Paul v. Barnabas
Take/leave John Mark
Galatians 1:10
Paul v. Galatians
Doubt Paul's Authority
Galatians 2:11
Paul v. Peter
Follow Jewish Rituals?
Philemon 1-25
Philemon v. Onesimus
Runaway slave be received


I. Responding to Conflict

People respond differently to conflict. For example, children with abusive parents may respond to conflict in their home in different ways. One becomes a passive, frightened victim and may remain that way throughout life. The other child becomes openly rebellious and defiant and may leave home early to survive as a teenager on the streets. This is partly due to the fact that we are all born with different temperaments (Young, 1993). Some of us are shy, while some are more outgoing, etc. Just as our temperaments push us in certain directions for different situations, so do our temperaments push us in certain directions when we perceive a threat or experience some kind of conflict. (This may not just be temperament, but also because we subconsciously choose different parents to copy or model ourselves after. The child can copy the abusive parent or the victimized parent.)

Generally there are three unhealthy ways to cope with conflicts (Young, 1993); Surrender, Escape, and Counterattack (in very broad terms it is called the fight, flight and freeze responses. For simplicity this may be an easier way to remember them).

A. Surrender (Freeze)
This type of response happens when a person, after perceiving a threat (conflict) of some kind, gives in to the needs of the other person readily. A person who demonstrates this type of response, sometimes known as “passive”, does not try to assert his/her own needs, but puts more priority in keeping the other party happy. While in the short term they may not appear to be in conflict with others, they often pent up their feelings and can eventually explode one day.

B. Escape (Flight)
People with this coping style tend to live without awareness. They frequently block unpleasant thoughts and images. When feelings surface, the person with the “flight” coping style pushes them back down. When they interact with others they appear perfectly calm. They usually avoid the conflict. Often they give excuses to avoid meeting together. They “forget” issues. They may raise superficial issues, come late to appointments, and may even terminate a relationship unexpectedly.

C. Counterattack (Fight)

When a person with the counterattack coping style perceives a threat, he/she will actively fight against the threat. Arguing back in a way that states your needs but also takes into the account the other’s feelings is known as being “assertive” and this is healthy. However, most people with the counterattacking style usually argue back in an unhealthy way. That is to say that their behavior is usually excessive, insensitive or unproductive, and they lose their ability to connect deeply with others. Some people, when they are in “attack mode”, perceive themselves to actually be defending against someone else’s attack. The cycle then repeats itself and they both feel that they must defend against an unprovoked attack.

In the extreme, counterattackers are so invested in winning that they forfeit true intimacy. They are unable to take responsibilities for their failures, and therefore have trouble learning from their mistakes. Many of our admired leaders, actors, political leaders and business tycoons are often counterattackers. In fact, our society today rewards counterattackers.

As stated, all three coping styles are unhealthy. Some of us use a variety of different coping styles when we face conflict with people in different settings. For example, we may use “escape” with our spouse but “counterattack” with someone at church, or “escape” with our boss at work, but “surrender” with our parents. While these styles may achieve some results in the short run, in the long run, they do not meet the core needs of an individual. Intimacy and closeness are denied and conflicts are never really resolved at the heart level.

When resolving conflicts, it is important to identify what type of coping response those in conflict are using when they perceive a threat. The reason being that if properly identified, this unhealthy behavior pattern can be broken and depth can be created in the relationship instead. The healthiest coping style is a “vulnerability” mode, which we shall address later.

II. Steps in Resolving Conflicts

Here and below are some brief steps in helping parties to resolve conflicts:

A. Find Safe People for Arbitration

If parties are not able to resolve conflicts by themselves, then according to our familiar passage on conflict resolution in Matthew 18: 15ff, we need to find an arbitrator – a person whose primary task is to not be neutral (unlike a mediator) but who will also propose his own solutions to the problem at hand after hearing both sides. Both parties need to feel “safe” about the arbitrator. There may be more than one, as the scripture says (Matthew 18:16). Arbitrators will help parties in conflict see matters objectively, while the parties themselves may see their issues subjectively. Seeing matters objectively will help us know what the appropriate response should have been, for example. Seeing matters subjectively will get us to focus only on our hurts and pain. For this to take place effectively, both sides need to give him/her the freedom and authority to speak his/her mind. If there are more than one, then they should get unified between themselves before presenting their findings to both parties. Otherwise, each party will take sides and the matter will not be viewed with clarity and objectivity.

It should also be stated that God himself would be able to give us objective insights into our conflicts as we bring our issues to him in prayer. In 1 Peter 5: 7, it says that we should cast all of our anxieties to him, and this includes anxieties arising from our conflicts. David many times poured out his heart before God. The book of Psalms are filled with his hurts and pain that he had expressed to God. Many times the Psalms of David (for example Psalms 7, 10, 11, 13) begins with a self focused (subjective) view, but in the end it takes on a more godly (objective) view. Prayer makes a difference.

B. Identify Each Person’s Core Needs
When people employ any of the unhealthy coping responses above, as stated, their core needs are not met. It is important then from the beginning to identify what the core needs are in each of the respective persons involved in the conflict. Sometimes the core needs come down to one or more of the following:

• The need to be believed in
• The need to be loved
• The need to feel secure
• The need to feel forgiven
• The need for support
• The need to feel respected and appreciated
• The need to be liked
• The need to be accepted for who he or she is

Unfortunately, many times people do not even know what their needs are. They have gone on for so long using one of their unhealthy coping styles that they themselves do not know what they are in need of. However, even though we may not know what our needs are, our emotions still gets triggered. This is because our emotions are separate from our thinking (cognitions). It has been proven scientifically that our emotions are stored in a different memory compartment in our brain than our thinking (Young, 2003). In fact, research has shown that our emotions are triggered quicker than our thinking, resulting in unhealthy coping styles. (For those of us who are married, we can surely think of a time when our emotional mouth shot off before the cognitive side of our brain was engaged!!)

It is helpful, therefore, before attempting to resolve conflicts, to give each party a chance to take a break and try to identify their own respective core needs. Sometimes they may need help in this area. Arbitrators should help them to identify these core emotional needs.

C. Help Them to be Vulnerable
When an individual is able to express his or her need in words (without accusation or counterattacking) and at the same time to admit their weaknesses, they enter into a vulnerable mode. Unfortunately, most of us are acquainted with the negative use of this word, for example, our house is vulnerable if it is not locked or our computer is vulnerable if it is not protected. While the meanings here somewhat overlap, vulnerability in the sense meant here is a hugely endearing quality that is a combination of humility and honesty.

In the past, we have often taught people to be “open”. Openness was practiced, sometimes in a godly way and sometimes not. Openness can lead to people saying very hurtful and mean statements in the name of being “open”. Christians should not take “openness” as a license to vent out all of their feelings, good or bad, sometimes causing more harm than good. We need to distinguish the two clearly and embrace vulnerability over openness. It takes more courage and humility to be vulnerable than it does to be open. The world admires the latter, but the bible encourages the former.

Most men have a hard time with identifying their core needs. Men who try to be vulnerable are sometimes made fun of, and they get embarrassed because they feel that their manhood is being tested. So rather than going deeper and identifying their core emotional needs, they get superficial and put on a bold front. When emotional needs are not met, they resort to other means to meet this need unconsciously. Sometimes this may result in some form of addiction; internet pornography, cyber games, internet surfing, playing sports, drinking, movie or TV watching, over-eating, smoking, gambling and even excessive reading.

The Apostle Paul, a strong and courageous leader, was secure enough to be vulnerable. Paul was especially vulnerable, seen in the following scriptures:


i) In 2 Corinthians 1: 3-11, Paul poured out his heart and talked about his sufferings and then thanked them for their prayers. He was in need and he willingly expressed that to the disciples. While most leaders would put up a bold front in the face of adversities, Paul talked about his weaknesses, including possibly even feeling suicidal or thinking he was going to die soon.


ii) 1 Thessalonians 3: 1-6, Paul openly said that he was desperate to find out how they were doing (3: 1-2), and that when he found out that they had missed him (3: 6-7), it brought him great joy. Paul did not put up a bold front and acted like he did not need relationships with the young disciples. In fact, he wanted them to know that he really missed them, and it pleased him when he found out that they missed him, too. He expressed his need for them.


iii) In Philippians 1: 3-8, again, Paul openly said how much he missed them. He was expressive about the part that they had played in his life. He missed them and had fond memories of them. They were a source of joy and encouragement to him and he expressed that openly. Again, he expressed his need. Expressing one’s needs and weaknesses is helpful in endearing ourselves to others, and as a result giving them an opportunity to empathize with our weaknesses and meet our needs.

D. Take a Listening Stance

Unfortunately, many arbitrators approach conflicts without first listening actively to both sides. When engaged they have a tendency to “push for resolution”. Perhaps their reputation is at stake. Perhaps they are rushed for time. It is hard to know. Special efforts need to be made to listen. The following factors should be taken into account:

• Allocate enough time when arbitrating. Nothing substantial is likely to be accomplished when only a short time is allocated. Thirty minutes before or after a church service will very likely yield a superficial result.
• Remove distractions. Cell phones ringing, meetings in noisy places, lack of privacy – these will distract the process.
• Sit or face the person directly with an open body posture and with healthy eye contact (avoid extremes, i.e. looking away or staring like a serial killer)
• Focus on listening first, not giving solutions. Many leaders are solutions oriented people. It is easy to provide the solutions and not the listening attention that is needed. Listening goes a long way in bringing about healing in both parties.
My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, (James 1: 19)
• Clarify issues, rather than make assumptions. Ask questions that allow you to gain useful knowledge in trying to understand each party’s case.
• Paraphrase (saying back in your own words) periodically what you have heard to see if both parties acknowledge that you have understood both of them correctly.
• Reflect feelings like, “I can imagine how upsetting that must have been”, without sounding judgmental or necessarily in agreement or “This is what I think I heard you say…Is that right?” or “What did you hear me say?”
• Summarize after each topic being discussed to show that you have a good grasp of their issues.

E. Understand the Power of Context

The power of context simply says that human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environments than they may seem (Gladwell, 2002). For example, we respond better to a clean, well-lit room than a dingy and dirty one; we do better on a test at school when we have had a healthy breakfast and a peaceful morning at home than if we ate nothing and fought with our parents on the way out.

An incident which was studied at length by experts from Columbia University illustrates this point clearly. It happened in 1964, New York, when a young Queens woman, Kitty Genovese, was chased by her assailant and attacked three times on the street , over the course of half and hour, as thirty-eight of her neighbors watched from their windows. However, none of the witnesses called the police. The sense of apathy shocked the entire city. The findings of the experts finally led to the conclusion that when people are in a group, responsibility for acting is diffused. Everyone assumes that someone else will make the call or that the problem is really not their problem. The lesson learned is not that no one called despite the fact that thirty-eight people heard her screams; it’s that no one called because thirty-eight people heard her scream. Ironically, if there had only been one witness, she may have lived! This illustrates that getting people to care about others is sometimes very related to the smallest details, hence the power of context.

Understanding the power of context also means that we should take note that the people coming to us for help with conflict may be carrying baggage that has a direct impact on the situation. A story I read many years ago comes to mind. Two men looked on while a 15 year old girl screamed at her swimming instructor about her fear of the water. The first man made a disparaging remark about her behavior and said that if she were his student, he would push her in. The second man answered that apparently her whole family had drowned in a boating accident and the teenager was the only survivor, therefore, she was coming to the pool to get over her fear of water. Obviously, the first man felt terrible about the way he had jumped to conclusions. Context makes a difference!

Applied to our conflicts, sometimes we focus too much on the actual words that were said and not enough on the context, the history, the background. The context needs to be explored. Questions such as the following are sometimes helpful:

• What happened before that conflict that may have influenced you or triggered you to do or say that?
• What was bothering you before just before the incident?
• How were you feeling when you entered into the conversation in which the conflict took place?
• Did anything happen that made you have fears or worries just before the conflict?

Usually when the other party sees and understands the context, the explanation becomes that much more acceptable. This will in help the process of resolution to move forward. The context of a conflict is an extremely useful issue to explore. Context provides insights into the many small triggers that lead to conflict.

F. Construct Healing Statements

After both sides have been heard and have heard each other, and feelings of vulnerability have been expressed, it would be helpful in some cases (where conflict has led to severe hostility between the parties) to construct “healing statements”. This has to be understood carefully. This does not mean that the “victim” will dictate the tone of the conflict resolution or that the weaker party has a right to attach some kind of condition for resolution.

A healing statement, simply put, is a statement from one party to another to help him or her in the healing process. For example, it may be a statement such as, “I am sorry that I counterattacked and was too fearful and thought only about my own needs.” Or “I apologize for saying that you are a __________. That was completely uncalled for…” These are not conditions as much as there are helpful statements that may aid the process of conflict resolution. However, the arbitrators need to use their good judgment to examine the reasonableness of such a healing statement.

Contrary to popular belief, not all conflicts are a result of both sides sinning against each other to the same extent. Not all issues are a 50-50 scenario, as we would normally say. For example, let’s imagine a conflict between a brother who is in a small group and his leader. The brother is extremely uncooperative and abuses his leader frequently. (Hopefully this wouldn’t happen, since disciples are supposed to choose small groups themselves, but for the sake of example…) As a result of the repeated abuse, the leader decides, in view of his own well being, to move and lead somewhere else.

Now, assuming that the context was not hugely relevant, the abused small group leader should have a say in what the “healing statement” should be for him, not the other way round. However, in cases where both sides have “sinned equally” against each other, then both sides will need to construct a healing statement that should be uttered by the other side sincerely. Such statements will go a long way to diffuse anger. When anger is diffused, then forgiveness will be that much more real on an emotional level. When forgiveness is real the conflict can truly be water under the bridge. When forgiveness is not real it will take bitter roots, as mentioned in Hebrews 12: 14-15:

14Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 15See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.


If the responsible party is unwilling to see his wrong, then the onus rests on the arbitrators to decide how to go forward.

We are not at all saying that healing statements are a prerequisite to forgiveness. As will be seen later on, forgiveness has no attachment, and it is something we do solely by ourselves. However, if speak the other party’s language of apology, in other words, if we come across in a way that feels sincere to the other party, it goes a long way towards providing healing. There is a difference between making this a requirement of forgiveness as opposed to seeing this as a very helpful tool for conflict resolution. We all have different ways of hearing and communicating a sincere apology, in just the same way husbands and wives have different ways of communicating love (Chapman and Thomas, 2006).

Sincerity is an area that is more emotional than rational. We pride ourselves into thinking that we are not emotional people. We esteem rational people for being more intelligent or “together”. The truth is, we are all very emotional beings. It is our emotional component that releases anger, disappointments, sadness, and excitement. When we can bring about healing at an emotional level, it will sit better with the both parties. When we speak the other person’s language, it will sooth them better. It will get to the core of the emotional make up, and this will bring about better resolution than just approaching matters at a rational level.

One good example to illustrate this is to think about the times when we are in conflict with our teenage children. What works best? A rational argument and debate or a (positive) emotional approach to try and win them over? For teenagers, emotional arguments go further than rational ones. Yes, we need both, but we often marginalize the emotional part while lifting up the rational side. As such, proper and complete healing and resolution does not always take place. People who can connect with others at an emotional level are the ones who will be able to bring about healing in others in a conflict. Too few people have grasped this principle. Unfortunately, this subject itself can be another paper altogether, but it is important to bring this point out when we deal with conflict resolution. Do not underestimate the power of healing statements.

G. Close Matters Clearly

When you get to the end of your conflict resolution, go through the agreement that was reached, and the lessons learned with both parties thoroughly. Perhaps some of them need to do some homework, like read a book or talk with someone else to gain further clarification. It is important to write all of this down in black and white. People have selective memories and issues tend to be remembered differently over time. Writing it down will help both parties to leave with clarity. Occasionally, parties will change their minds when they go through a challenging time in their life. Referring back to such black and white agreements and resolutions again would be most helpful. It will prevent them from rewriting history in their own minds.

III. Learning to Forgive Properly

The most important issue to not gloss over is the issue of forgiveness. Many times this is done so quickly that a superficial forgiveness takes place. Problems then get repeated. Forgiveness is challenging, especially when the hurts run deep. In all my experience, the number one reason why forgiveness is difficult is because it does not sit with us as being fair. It takes time and effort, but forgiveness is important for the following reasons:

A. For Our Own Mental Well-Being
When we brew in anger for prolonged periods of time, who are we hurting the most? It is ourselves, as we wallow in our inner turmoil and bitterness. Forgiveness helps us break the cycle and we will then be able to move forward. Some say that this is a selfish point of view. However, it is appropriate for us to care for ourselves, so that we, in turn, can feel free and take care of other people. When a passenger boards an airplane, he/she is told that, should there be a need to wear an oxygen mask, passengers accompanying a child should put their own mask in place first, and then help the child. In the same way, if we are going to move forward and take care of others, we should have loving concern for ourselves.

B. For Own Salvation
Again, this is another point that concerns our self more than others, and that is our own salvation. In Matthew 18: 35, Jesus says plainly,

This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from the heart.

In no uncertain terms, our salvation is completely dependent on us forgiving all those who have hurt us. When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray in Luke 11: 4, praying to forgive others and asking for forgiveness was a central part of that lesson to them. How sad it would be if we willingly go to great lengths of sacrifice and commitment, but then be disqualified from the race by our unwillingness to forgive someone from our heart?!

C. In Response to God’s Love
All of our sins are an offense to a loving God, who sent Jesus to die for us. Our understanding of God and His grace is what will give us the motivation to forgive others, seen in the following passages:

32Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4: 32)

 

13Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3: 13)

12Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (Matthew 6: 12)


All of these passages show that our desire to forgive someone flows from our God who is willing to forgive us in the first place. In other words, we pass on what we receive. We receive grace and so we pass on grace to others. Whether the other person deserves it is not the issue, but it is how we respond to God’s grace that is the issue.

IV. Steps Involved in Forgiveness


A. Identify the Hurts
The process of moving towards forgiving someone involves us recognizing our hurts or anger. Many people face conflicts with the avoidance style and choose to not remember the hurts. The goal here is to not wallow in self-pity but to be accurate and to get a clear picture of what had happened. Many people have argued that having anger is wrong in itself. Most respectable counsellors would say that genuine forgiveness almost always includes anger (Stoop 1996, Young 2003). Without anger most forgiveness is superficial. In fact, it is by working through our anger that we will be able to go through the process of forgiveness.

The emotion of anger itself is not wrong. It is a normal part of a human’s emotions. However, what we do with the anger is an entirely different thing. Take a look at Jesus’ reaction in Mark 3: 1-5. Here, it says clearly that Jesus looked at them in anger. However, he did not sin. This is healthy anger, so-called “righteous” anger.
In Ephesians 4: 25-27 we read

25Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26"In your anger do not sin": Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27and do not give the devil a foothold.


Notice it does separate anger from sin, and that it is possible to do one and not the other. It is our response to anger that determines whether we sin or not. Proverbs 29: 11 says:

A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.


Again, if we choose to not deal with it in a healthy way, then it is wrong. However, this is different from feeling the anger in the first place, which is part of our make up. We need a pause button to process the anger and not vent it out in unhealthy ways. One very helpful way is to bring the matter up, and express our anger to our small group or to a trusted friend and talk through it with them. Proverbs 22:24 says that we should not associate with one who is easily angered, and we know from the Apostle Paul’s beautiful teaching in I Corinthians 13 that love is not easily angered. Therefore, we shouldn’t get angry often, and when we do, we should take care to not sin in our anger – neither blowing up on others nor allowing the anger to stew and brew. In that case, the anger will take root and produce bitterness, and destroy us as well as others!

14Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 15See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. (Hebrews 12: 14-15)


B. Decide to Cancel the Debt
Jesus taught us an entire parable when He spoke about forgiveness in Matthew 18: 21-35. He used the analogy of a King who wanted to settle his accounts with his servants. At first the King wanted his debtors to sell everything they had to repay the debt. Later, when they begged for mercy, he had compassion on them and cancelled the debt. Likewise, we are to exercise the same compassion on others. Even in banks today when we are unable to repay a loan, the banks will attempt to litigate the matter. However, when a person is still unable to pay back his debt, they cancel the debt, and in banking terminology, this is called forgiving the loan (Stoop, 1996).

When a person hurts us they cause us pain, and we feel as though they have taken something from us, perhaps our joy, peace, happiness, dignity. They now owe it to us. Going around and making them pay for the debts when they cannot repay simply makes us very miserable people. We bring destruction of our spiritual, mental and even physical health onto our selves. We become miserable, and our bitterness eats us away. We cannot reverse the clock. The offense has been committed. We need to make a decision then to cancel the debt, and stop going after their IOUs. We do not pretend that the debt never existed, but we cancel the debt. The other party now owes us nothing. We have no longer any expectations when we cancel the debt. This is a decision that we need to make as Christians. In fact we are capable of making this decision over and over again. Jesus taught that to Peter when he asked Jesus, “How many times should I forgive my brother when he sins against me?”

One of the myths associated with forgiveness is that when we forgive, we should also forget. Nothing is further from the truth. Deep hurts, on the other hand, ought to be remembered so that you will be able to learn the lessons from that painful experience. It will enable you to relate with others and share with them about their predicament. Further when we remember them, we will also remember the time when we made a decision to forgive, and should negative feelings arise, we will be able to then reflect and move forward. In fact when people choose to not forgive and just forget about their painful past, it never goes away. It is strange how it works, but the past does haunt us in ways that will hurt us as we go forward, and with time, the hurts may turn into bitterness and be even stronger.

It is also important to note that when we make a decision to forgive deep hurts that have hindered us, it is advisable to do a ritual to show that we have forgiven, such as talking about it in front of others, burning records of that hurts with some of our trusted friends, and/or having some kind of a marker to remind us that we have cancelled the debt and they owe us nothing.

C. Set Boundaries to Protect Yourself

When we forgive someone who has hurt us repeatedly, it is wise to draw some boundaries with such an individual, in order to not be in a compromised position again. Boundaries are limits that we set to protect our property or ourselves. If someone has repeatedly hurt us over and over again, we should continue to forgive them, but we may also move away from spending so much time with them.

This is not to be confused with the way unforgiving people misuse the term “boundaries” and set boundaries to avoid even meeting up with others. Some Christians have also misused the idea of boundaries to say that they have a right to confront a leader but they do not have to listen to anything from him/her. This is not a part of forgiveness or conflict resolution – this is “bashing”, and is actually a disguise for “revenge”. One way to distinguish between helpful clarification and “bashing” is to examine our motives. Our motives will reflect a great deal about why we would like to confront. Getting other trusted people involved will also be helpful to sort out where our heart is.

Another helpful aspect to examine is our level of expectation. Healthy confrontation works best when there is little or no expectation. On the other hand we will get upset or hurt again when we have very high expectations for the first meeting and we may accuse the other party of:

• Denial
• Counter attacking
• Minimizing
• Ambiguity

On the other hand, there are people who have changed more than we realize. We remember them as they were, and have no idea how much they have changed now. So we should confront them based on what they were, not what they are.

D. Consider the Possibility of Reconciliation
Forgiveness is a process and a decision that the offended party can do by him or herself. We can make the decision to cancel the debt and get help from others. However, unlike forgiveness, reconciliation can only take place when both sides are willing to cooperate. Both sides need to come together for two people to be reconciled.

One of the most touching stories about reconciliation was the account between Jacob and Esau. In Genesis 27: 41-45, Esau bore a grudge against his twin brother Jacob because Isaac passed on his blessings to Jacob instead of to him, the first-born. Jacob was then advised by his mother, who favored him, to leave the place, which he did, in Genesis 28: 10. As events turned out, he then ended up starting his own family by marrying both daughters of Laban - Leah and Rachel. In Genesis 32: 1, Jacob made a plan to try and get reconciled with his brother Esau. He was unsure of Esau’s reaction, but he took the initiative nonetheless. Against fear, he sent a representative to Esau with a gift. Over the many years that had gone by, Esau must have processed the entire ordeal that separated the two of them. He responded back with equal zeal and warmth. When they finally saw each other, the bible says:

But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. (Genesis 33: 4)


What a scene! They both had processed their own actions and they were able to forgive one another. Only then were they both ready to get reconciled. Thus for reconciliation to take place, there must be forgiveness first. You cannot have reconciliation without forgiveness, otherwise the reconciliation will be shallow. It can only proceed from forgiveness. However, the reverse is not true. You can forgive without reconciliation.

Reconciliation is highly recommended when the two parties are in the same church or ministry and whose work is interdependent with one another. It is not always necessary if they are separated and when there is little overlapping of responsibilities between them. If our emotional well-being is able to accept being together with the person who have offended us then we should move towards reconciliation.


Conclusion: Moving Forward

When a proper process of forgiveness is followed thorough properly, the results are enriching. Unfortunately, many people, in their attempt to resolve conflict quickly, have settled for superficial forgiveness and shallow reconciliation, only to see their hurts return. The process of forgiveness, especially over deep hurts, takes time and it is essential to involve other trusted people in that process. However, nothing is like the feeling of being freed from an entangled conflict with someone that has consumed so much time and resulted in so much distress. God loves us, which is why he wants us to take this issue seriously. He wants us as disciples to live in peace with one another and demonstrate to the world that we can have differences, but still resolve matters amicably, show acceptance and extend forgiveness. After resolving conflicts, we need to move forward.

Unfortunately, many people do not get to this stage and instead of seeing their need for help, they blame someone else. In life there are disappointments, hurts and changes that are sometimes no one’s fault. Our societies are becoming more and more litigious. Everybody is looking for someone to blame. Such a view of life will never lead to an inner peace and joy, but will bring people into deeper bitterness. Even if the people we forgive do not deserve our forgiveness it is not up to us to judge.

No matter how deep the hurts, how painful they were, once we forgive, we are no longer held in slavery of bitterness. We are in fact winners, and as we take responsibility for our own actions in a conflict and move forward, God will work through us. Let us be wise men and women who possess the kind of wisdom to which James refers:

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. (James 3:17)


And let us help others to resolve conflict, for

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. (Matthew 5:9)


In the movie, The Prince of Tides, the character played by Nick Nolte gained awareness of his past abuse and grew so much emotionally that he was able to save his wrecked marriage. His insight was “there is no sin in the family beyond forgiveness.” Let us hold to that sentiment and resolve conflict in the family of God.

John Louis

Singapore


References

Chapman, G. & Thomas, J. (2006), Five languages of apology, IL: Northfield Publishing

Gladwell, M. (2001), The tipping point, NY: Back Bay Books

Stoop, D. (1996). Forgiving our parents forgiving ourselves, CO: Regal.

Webne-Behrman, H. (1998), About conflict, Retrieved April 25, 2008, from
http://www.ohrd.wisc.edu/onlinetraining/resolution/aboutwhatisit.htm#whatisconflict

Young, J., Klosko, J. Weishaar, M. (2003), Schema therapy, NY: Guildford

Young, J. & Klosko, J. S. (1993), Reinventing your life, NY: Plume

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